In fight over COVID-19 relief bills, Pa. lawmakers walk a political tightrope | Thursday Morning Coffee

April 9, 2020 7:16 am

State Rep. Melissa Shusterman, D-Chester (Facebook photo)

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

If there’s been one sign of encouragement to come out of the still unfolding tragedy that is the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the energy and vigor with which state lawmakers have tried to advance legislative solutions to ease the load for Pennsylvanians who’ve lost their livelihoods or loved ones — or both — as a result of this historic public health crisis.

We’re going to start by noting three bills that have emerged in the past week or so, because they clearly illustrate the very different ways that Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate want to address the issue. And then we’ll take a look at what that means for the way forward.

1. On Wednesday, Democratic state Reps. Melissa Shusterman, of Chester County (that’s her in the main photo above), and newly elected Rep. Roni Green, of Philadelphia, dropped a proposal that would authorize loan forgiveness for healthcare workers. A memo seeking support for the proposal is silent on how the proposal precisely would work, and its cost. But the two lawmakers do note in a statement that the average loan payment for nurses ranges from $196 to $544, dependent upon the degree it paid for.

2. On Tuesday, a House panel passed a previously approved, Republican-authored Senate bill, that would align mandatory business closings with federal guidelines, the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso and Elizabeth Hardison reported. That movement came over the strong protests of the Wolf administration.

3. Also on Wednesday, state Rep. Steve Malagari, D-Montgomery, said he’s proposing legislation aimed at protecting the state’s food supply workers. The bill “would be related to social distancing within the workplace, paid leave, attendance policies, and protocols for protecting and notifying employees should a coworker become ill,” the suburban Philly lawmaker said in a statement.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams

So if you take a look above, you’ll see an immediate split in the philosophical approach, with Democrats concentrating on people-centered solutions, such as paid leave (a non-starter for most Republicans) and loan forgiveness programs.

Republicans, meanwhile, have emphasized market-oriented solutions, which have been given their most robust voice in a plan sponsored by Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, that would allow businesses to reopen if employees abide by CDC guidelines. Introduced as fatalities continue to rise, Democrats have viewed it as a non-starter.

In a statement Tuesday, Senate Democrats say they’ll vigorously oppose the GOP’s proposed COVID-19 task force, which is intended to get the state to “rebuild and rise” from the pandemic “as efficiently as possible.” It would draw its membership from the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. But thanks to a quirk of partisan math, its membership would be top-heavy with Republicans.

“Republicans are putting lives at risk and undermining the governor and [state Health Secretary RachelLevine’s best efforts to end this crisis,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said in a statement. “Instead of taking the advice of our health secretary, they are trying to slow down our response and hasten the re-opening of non-essential businesses against the guidance of every public health entity in the country.”

Taking to TwitterHouse Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, argued that the administration’s admittedly flawed process for issuing waivers to non-essential businesses appealing its March 19 shutdown order “points to the fact that there are appropriate measures that can be taken for some businesses to continue to operate.”

So those are the philosophical dividing lines.

Pa. Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, talks to reporters after Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget address to a joint session of the state House and Senate on Tuesday, 2/4/2020 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Underneath all this is an undeniable political component. Polling data across the spectrum shows strong support for paid leave. And legislative Democrats, who are looking to wipe out the last moderate Republicans in the Philly ‘burbs this fall are undoubtedly aware of the efficacy of painting the GOP as the enemy of the working man in the midst of an economy-crushing pandemic.

While we’re not aware of any hard polling to support it (though Republicans likely have internals enough to prop up every table in their caucus room), you don’t have to look real hard to find actual business owners complaining about the toll that Wolf’s business shutdown order is taking on their bottom lines.

And Republicans undoubtedly sense a potent general election issue there as well as they look to hold a shaky majority in the House and a more secure one in the state Senate.

Those very real concerns are also major factors in the debate, and remain the unseen hand pushing the argument forward. The tension for both sides is that fine line between trying to avoid being seen as obstructionist while trying to preserve political advantage.

The “Shrek” Rule of Public Policy — that every initiative, just like an ogre, has layers of meaning behind it, is applicable to almost every major legislative debate. In the midst of a pandemic, it’s not only applicable, it’s critical to understanding the larger forces that power the debate.

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Our Stuff.
The 2019-20 state budget could be up to $1.8 billion short because of COVID-19 business closingsStephen Caruso reports.

Zoom hackers targeted three candidates for state auditor general, all of whom are women of color, with racial, misogynistic slurs and threats, Cassie Miller reports. And central Pennsylvania’s major food retailers, such as Karns, are urging shoppers to be patient as they reestablish supply lines and try to refill their shelves, Miller also reports.

Northeastern Pennsylvania Correspondent Patrick Abdalla has this look at how the pandemic is impacting a regional rite of summer: church picnics and regional festivals. They’re looking at postponing or canceling these important revenue-raising events.

Gov. Tom Wolf has signed an executive order allowing the state to move personal protective equipment and ventilators among healthcare facilities to fight the pandemic, Capital-Star Pittsburgh Correspondent Kim Lyons reports.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and 18 other Democratic senators are urging that Congress include money to support local journalism in the next federal stimulus bill, your humble newsletter author writes.

From our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune: City and suburban leaders are calling on the Wolf administration to implement “load balancing” procedures for local hospitals.

On our Commentary Page, Brittney Rodas, a Democratic candidate for Dauphin County’s 105th House District, explains what it’s like to campaign in the age of social distancing. And Rich Askey of PSEA explains how teachers are trying to keep in touch with their students in the midst of the lockdown.

The floor of the Pa. House of Representatives during a joint session on 4/10/19 , commemorating the deaths at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue (screen capture)

Spotlight PA
 takes its own look at the legislative debate over Gov. Tom Wolf’s business shutdown order.
Pittsburgh City Paper goes deep on the effort by Pa. nurses and healthcare workers to build their political clout.
PennLive wonders whether the shutdown of state liquor stores has popped the cork on a new debate over privatization.
The Morning Call maps COVID-19 cases in Allentown.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

Immigrant detainees in Berks County have sued for their release in the midst of the crisis, WHYY-FM reports.
The PA Post spent a day with a nurse practitioner on the front lines. 
Border checkpoints are discouraging travel between some states, reports.
A progressive group is targeting state-level Pa. races, PoliticsPA reports.
President Donald Trump wants to reopen the economy with a ‘big bang,’ Talking Points Memo reports.

What Goes On.
Time TBD:
 Daily COVID-19 briefing.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Have a birthday you’d like observed in this space? Email [email protected], and we’ll add you to the shout-out list.

Heavy Rotation.
This song was polarizing at the time, but with the passage of two decades, it’s just a really great pop song. It’s ‘Why Can’t I Breathe,’  by Liz Phair.

Thursday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link.
Former St. Louis Cardinals star Mark Hamilton will soon be a doctor on the frontlines at a hospital on Long Island. He’ll virtually graduate from medical school on Friday, and start a residency at Northwell’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center, according to

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.